Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, or Bamewawagezhikaquay (The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), was an Ojibwe writer who lived in the 1800s in the upper peninsula of the Michigan Territory. A woman of many firsts, she holds the unique title of being the first Native American and female literary writer to write poetry and traditional Native American stories in both her native language as well as English. Now, that’s quite a long list of achievements for anyone, but in the context of her time period it’s endlessly fascinating to consider her work growing from this blend of cultures. Although Schoolcraft did not publish her work during her lifetime, the recovery of her bilingual manuscripts has been of great interest, especially with the recent publication of her collected writings by Robert Dale Parker. Today she is included in the broader literary canon that we see growing to include a larger scope of literary styles, topics, and backgrounds.
She was born to John Johnston, an Irish immigrant, and Ozhaguscodaywayquay, also known as Susan Johnston, the Ojibwe daughter of Chief Waub Ojeeg. Schoolcraft’s métis, or mixed-blood, background provided her with not only an education in Ojibwe language and traditions, but also with a knowledge of European history and literature. Although métis children were not uncommon in this time, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft took her diverse education and turned its potential toward something extraordinary: preserving her culture’s stories and poetry, as well as creating her own original compositions.
Though she didn’t publish, her inclination for the written word was far more than a simple dalliance. Her writings are complex, layered, and deal with relevant ideas and issues within her society. Her use of Romantic language, imagery, and forms shows that she was writing within her own time, echoing and answering other writers of her day. Her poem “Invocation to My Maternal Grandfather, Wabojeeg, on hearing his descent misrepresented” is addressed to her Ojibwe grandfather, lauding him as a noble leader and a great warrior. The poem’s traditional Euro-American language, form, and tone, as well as the characterization of a noble Native American man, are the first details a reader spots. In many ways, the commonplace form and surface theme isn’t quite what you expect from an Ojibwe writer. However, the poem’s purpose is not to play into the romanticized idea of the “noble savage”, a pervading stereotype of the day. By commemorating her grandfather through Ojibwe imagery, she is not sensationalizing or capitalizing on a romanticized notion of her heritage, she is working within Euro-American literary techniques to memorialize her ancestor through storytelling, an enduring and important technique and theme in Native American cultures. What is truly remarkable here is the sum of all these parts: she took two commonplace techniques from her mixed cultures and blended them together to create a work of literary note. This alone would be an achievement worth noticing, but there’s more than that here—what she wrote is very good and worthy of inclusion in the American canon.
The recovery of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s work provides a lost viewpoint with its authentically unselfconscious Ojibwe voice. However, it is equally important to recognize her Euro-American heritage, which she seamlessly integrates into her writings by allowing the popular styles of the day to become vessels for this voice. This unique blending of voice and style brings the incredible variety of American literature to the surface and represents a group of people who existed in the gaps during the nineteenth century: the mixed-blood peoples of the frontier.
The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft edited and compiled by Robert Dale Parker
Photo via thesoundthestarsmake.com